After months of quarantine and new safety regulations, the United States is finally beginning to re-open. It’s clear that COVID-19 has left extreme impacts on individuals and industries worldwide… and is continuing to do so. We often discuss the negative effects that COVID-19 has brought to the healthcare and supply chain industry or the positive impact that it’s had on the tech industry, but how has the pandemic affected the environment and has the environment impacted the pandemic? Let’s examine.
Before the pandemic, it was already widely known that emissions needed to decrease dramatically in order to prevent further climate change damages. The most well-known perpetrators of releasing CO2 emissions into the air are transportation methods such as cars, trucks, and aviation. But since COVID-19, carbon emissions have declined significantly, which has helped move towards the goal of preventing such damages caused by climate change.
While global CO2 emissions projected to rise only higher in 2020, the Global Carbon Project predicted that it may fall by around 5 percent—or 2.5. billion tons—which would be the lowest levels seen since the recession. With air travel being responsible for 2-3% of all global CO2 emissions, it’s not surprising that the air travel bans helped create the fall in in emissions. In fact, since the COVID-19 outbreak, commercial flights fell 55% in the final week of March 2020 compared to 2019 and the “average number of daily flights has more than halved in the last two months” as of April 2020.
That being said, land transport has also left a strong impact in the decreased levels of CO2 emissions being released into the air. While air travel has significantly produced the largest reduction, air emissions only take into account that 2-3% as mentioned above. Road travel has more frequent and constant usage, so while “the relative reductions in land transport are lower than air transport, the absolute reductions there are much more significant,” says Robbie Andrew, senior researcher at the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research.
Air quality and lifespan
Not only does reducing emissions benefit the environment, but it can also save lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “9 out of 10 people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, and more than 80% of people living in urban areas are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO guideline limits.” China and India are two countries that have some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world, putting their populations at risk of dying prematurely from inhaling fatal amounts of air by simply breathing or walking outside.
The Center for International Climate Research (CICERO) looked into these alarming numbers of deaths as a result of air pollution and predicted that the annual avoided number of premature deaths could be anywhere from 54,000-109,000 if China were to remain at 20-30% below the baseline for a full year. Eventually, this could even lead to a higher lifespan given proper air quality is stable or otherwise improved. However, the lack of CO2 emissions caused by the COVID-19 transportation restrictions are not the full solution to achieving this goal, especially with transportation already starting up again. It will hopefully, though, allow for the start of further research and solutions to be put forth.
Climate change/deforestation and wildlife
There are many more ties between climate change and pandemics than individuals may know. The COVID-19 virus has affected climate change in multiple aspects, but climate change has affected the rise of COVID-19 as well. The ways in which we go about solving climate change can actually change the course of how future or present virus outbreaks occur.
One main factor of climate change is deforestation. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, epidemics such as Ebola which recently stemmed from West Africa, probably began due to the fact that the infected bats were forced to abruptly change habitats because their original “homes” were being cut down in order to grow other trees more beneficial to humans (i.e. palm oil trees).
Years after the Ebola outbreak, COVID-19 made its way into infecting individuals from around the entire globe, and it’s been shown that the root of the cause is not the bats- which many people are quick to blame- but by humans ourselves. When animals such as bats are forced to change habitats and then are being hunted and shipped together with other species, it’s almost inevitable that a number of viruses would spread among them, similar to how one individual with a cold could easily pass it onto a group of people by simply standing next to them.
It’s also noted that like humans, bats are a species that are prone to stress, so in situations where they are being hunted or their homes are being destroyed, their immune system is compromised which unsurprisingly increases their chances of carrying a virus such as COVID-19 or Ebola.
As Kate Jones, chair of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London, explained, “We are [also] destroying their habitats into landscape that are more human-dominated… Viruses are on the rise more because there are so many of us and we are so connected. The chance of more [spillovers into humans] happening is higher because we are degrading these landscapes. Destroying habitats is the cause, so restoring habitats is a solution.”
It’s apparent that global pandemics such as COVID-19 go hand-in-hand with the environment, and while it has taken its toll on the health of hundreds of thousands of individuals around the world, it’s important to understand that the way we interact with the environment is not irrelevant to the given situation. Though easier said than done, finding solutions and rethinking how we go about our current interaction with the environment can ultimately help lead to positive change (such as infection prevention) if we put our best effort into taking such topics seriously.